‘I Marched in Selma’
Portland locksmith recalls the beatings and arrests
Christa McIntyre | 2/21/2017, 5 p.m.
52 years ago, Portland locksmith and business owner J.J. Moore participated in the historic Selma to Montgomery marches to protest the massive discrimination facing black voters in Alabama. It was a pinnacle of the Civil Rights movement under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, and a young man named John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Together with thousands of other black protesters, they helped turn the tide with the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 under President Johnson.
The small town of Selma is seated in Dallas County in the Alabama Black Belt. In 1961, while the population of Dallas County was 57 percent black, fewer than 1 percent were registered to vote because of discriminatory voting procedures. Without access to the ballot box, black citizens couldn’t choose their mayor, governor, representatives in Congress, president or sit on a jury. Under Jim Crow laws separating blacks from whites, the path to voting was littered with obstacles. Lewis, who went on to become a Congressman, described how at one Alabama courthouse at the time, black citizens were asked to name exactly how many gumballs were in a jar as a voter registration test requirement. Other black people who worked in the service industry or as sharecroppers in Dallas County were threatened by employers with losing their jobs if they registered to vote.
Moore’s mother and father started out as cotton sharecroppers in Selma, where the future Portland business owner was born and raised. His father, Thomas, learned to be a painter by trade and his mother, Ollie Mae became a seamstress. Through their hard work and over time, they saved enough money to build a house from the ground up in Selma, something most black people didn’t have the opportunity to do. Owning their home and having skilled trades also meant they couldn’t be pressured to not register to vote, because they had more economic independence than most.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee came to Selma in 1962 to start nonviolent direct action protests and conduct the grassroots work needed to get black Americans registered to vote. The group held training sessions to prepare for the literacy tests and other obstacles that were used to prevent minorities from voting. Many of these meetings were held in the famed Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church of Selma. A teenager at the time, Moore’s parents took him to a lot of the meetings. He said that out of his entire extended family, his parents were the first to try to register to vote.
Moore himself was arrested as a teenager on Jan. 19, 1965 when he joined his mother for a sit-in at the Selma courthouse to register to vote. Throughout the South, SNCC concentrated much of their efforts on getting young people involved with the Civil Rights Movement. On some days during those years, high school classrooms in Selma would clear out as students went to volunteer their time for Civil Rights work, Moore said. Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, a vocal opponent to integration in Selma, often wore military style clothing and worked with the Ku Klux Klan. Clark and his officers arrested the young Moore along with other protesters that day, the first time Moore went to jail fighting for the right to vote.